There are more than a few ways to rebuild a team in the National Hockey League. There is the “burn at all to the ground and start over after being completely uncompetitive for at least a couple of years” method, which has in the past been utilized by the Buffalo Sabres and is currently being implemented in Detroit. There is the “well, we know we’re probably not going to make the playoffs, but we should at least do something so we’ll sign a bottom tier free agent and hope for the best” method, which is the one the Carolina Hurricanes used for many years in the mid 2010s.
And then there’s the New York Rangers, who might be providing the blueprints for every NHL team to rebuild.
Sure, the Rangers were helped by the presence of one of the league’s premier goal scorers that they picked up in free agency, but to the Rangers’ credit, they managed to pull off a rebuild in a short amount of time, and now they’re knocking on the door of getting right back to the relevance that saw that make a run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014.
Which one works best? The Sabres made an all-out run to the basement, trading away everything that wasn’t nailed down leading up to the draft in 2015. Their hopes to pick up Connor McDavid were dashed by the Edmonton Oilers, who have had their own numerous half-baked rebuilds to speak of as well, but they did get Jack Eichel who, while he’s not McDavid, is certainly a cornerstone piece around which you can build a contending team.
But all that losing seems to have ingrained itself into the culture in Buffalo, and five years into Eichel’s career, he still has yet to make the playoffs and the Sabres are largely spinning their wheels, now under the third head coach in the last five years. It becomes concerning for a team like Detroit, which has no stars to speak of on the level of a McDavid or Eichel, and could be facing their own long walk in the wilderness for the next few years unless they can pull a rabbit out of their hat.
At the other end, for many years late in the tenure of Jim Rutherford and throughout Ron Francis’ time as general manager, the Hurricanes were always players on the periphery of free agency, never making the decision to tackle a full-blown rebuild, but also never deciding to spend truckloads of cash on premier free agents.
The result is that for many years the Hurricanes stagnated, looking to their farm system to produce the kinds of stars that other teams were picking up either on the trade market or in free agency. It never worked, at least in the sense of making the playoffs, and it wasn’t until Don Waddell started to swing for the fences a bit more that the Hurricanes regularly made becoming relevant a goal of the organization. It wasn’t quite the same as Buffalo or Detroit, because the Hurricanes were never spinning their wheels as one of the worst teams in the league, but they were always around the mushy middle and never under took the major surgery necessary to take the next step.
Which brings us to the Rangers, and the rebuild that begin in earnest two years ago when general manager Jeff Gorton sent an open letter to Rangers fans saying that the Rangers would be in a rebuild and essentially admitting that they would not be competitive in the near future. It was a stark admission from an NHL general manager, the likes of which typically stay as far away as possible from anything other than “we plan to be competitive” at the risk of their own job.
But Gorton knew that this was the right move, he admitted it was the right move, and off went pretty much everyone who was under contract for any length of time and a significant amount. Mats Zuccarello went to Minnesota, Ryan McDonagh to Tampa Bay, J.T. Miller to the Lightning and eventually on to Vancouver. Eventually, all that was left was Henrik Lundqvist and a few remaining spare parts.
But then the Rangers snapped up Artemi Panerin in free agency last summer, and while the rebuild continues and is unlikely to be complete until Lundquist either retires or moves on from the organization in some capacity, it’s clear that the Rangers have an obvious plan and a method by which they plan to become competitive again – no small feat in the toughest conference division in the NHL.
Every team faces this reckoning at some point or another – just ask the San Jose Sharks – but the Rangers have shown that a solid plan, a supportive ownership, and Smart dealing can expedite a rebuild and bring a team back to relevance without it taking four, five, or more years. While the Hurricanes are solidly entrenched in the NHL’s upper middle class at this point, the Rangers aren’t far behind, and when it comes time for the Hurricanes to tear things down and rebuild again, they would be wise to follow the path set by the Rangers that will be on display at PNC Arena on Friday night.
The Hurricanes host the New York Rangers on Friday at 7:00. Tickets for the game are available via Stubhub.
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